The Discovery and Development of Solar Cells
The invention of solar cells, also known as photovoltaics, can be traced back to the 1880s when Charles Fritts created the first photovoltaic cell. Although it was not very efficient at the time, this breakthrough marked the start of a revolution in the use of solar energy that has continued to this day.
One of the most significant examples of the use of solar cells was the Vanguard 1 satellite, which was fitted with photovoltaic cells to power its communications after its chemical battery was exhausted. This success prompted NASA and its Russian counterpart to do the same with other satellites, including Telstar, which still serves as the backbone of the telecommunications infrastructure today.
The Growth of Solar Energy
The demand for solar energy increased significantly in the 1970s after the oil crisis, and early on, power companies charged consumers around $100 per watt. However, by the 1980s, this cost had dropped to just $7 per watt. Despite this drop in cost, the lack of government funding led to a decline in the growth of solar energy in the US, with annual growth only reaching 15% from 1984 to 1996.
Despite this, the use of solar energy has continued to grow in other countries, such as Japan and Germany, with the latter being the second largest user of solar energy in the world. Spain is the third largest user, followed by France, Italy, and South Korea.
Types of Solar Energy
There are three basic approaches to utilizing solar energy, including passive, active, and photovoltaic systems.
1. Passive solar energy involves designing buildings to take advantage of the sun’s energy, using controlled ventilation and daylighting to reduce heating requirements by up to 80% with minimal cost.
2. Active solar heating uses sunlight to convert it into heat for space or water heating. This approach is widely used in Europe and can provide up to 60% of a home’s hot water heating needs.
3. Photovoltaic systems convert solar radiation into electricity using solar cells, which are available in different sizes and are used in consumer devices such as calculators and watches.
Solar Energy in Transportation
Solar energy is also being used in the transportation industry, with solar cars competing in the annual World Solar Challenge in Australia. There are also unmanned aerial vehicles and balloons powered by solar energy, and solar energy has been successfully used to power passenger boats.
The Importance of Solar Energy
As a cheap and renewable source of energy, solar energy is an important option for reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources like oil. As experts in the field, it is our responsibility to lobby our government leaders to increase their support for the development of solar energy so that it can be accessible to everyone.